Changing the world, one meal at a time

Bruce Ucan with his daughters picking vegetables. Bruce's wife Christina convinced him to serve all local food in his restaurant

Bruce Ucan with his daughters picking vegetables. Bruce’s wife Christina convinced him to serve all local food in his restaurant, the Mayan Cafe in Louisville.

Who can make a positive difference in this time of global climate change, regional strife and unrepressed hatred? All but the most distracted of us certainly wonder whether we will leave the world a little better than before we arrived. Who among us can make that lasting difference, outside of Dr. King, or Gandhi?

Well, there’s Jan Sneegas, who sets up conferences for the Unitarian Universalist Church from her office in Boston. In 2013, the Unitarians’ national assembly was scheduled for Louisville’s Convention Center. Because the Unitarians require that all their meetings are planned in accordance with their environmental values, Sneegas came to Louisville and asked what kind of local food could be served to the 12,000 attendees.

The food at the convention center is the responsibility of a national dining service called Centerplate. Dining services often are hired to provide the food for large institutional settings, including universities, hospitals and entertainment venues. They are all required to buy from certain companies, and buy certain kinds of food for which they contract years in advance. It’s a system that effectively eliminates a local farmer on small or medium-sized farms.

Jan Sneegas works for the Universalist Unitarian Church in Boston. When their national assembly was held in Louisville, she was able to bring change to the city.

The face of a single person making a big change in local food. Jan Sneegas works for the Universalist Unitarian Church in Boston. She pushed conventional boundaries in food service that keep local farmers out of purchasing decisions.

But because Jan Sneegas asked for local food, Centerplate worked hard to get it for her and the other attendees. They had to bend company purchasing rules to buy food for the Unitarians. They had to educate themselves. They asked their food suppliers to find local food. Jan Sneegas was a butterfly flapping her wings to create, if not a hurricane, a long-lasting understanding that local food in Louisville was here to stay. The next year, when 60,000 Future Farmers of America descended upon Louisville, Centerplate was ready with Kentucky-grown green beans and sweet potatoes.

And there is wife and mother Christina Shadle, a Louisville citizen who held a regular office job in downtown Louisville and cared about the things she and her family ate. When she married a local restaurant owner, she asked him why he didn’t serve more local food. Now, the 50-seat Mayan Café buys directly from local farmers in Kentucky and Southern Indiana and serves local food in virtually all its dishes six days a week.

Neither of these situations is earthshattering. Neither will create the dollars that will support a farmer for a year, much less transform the agricultural in Kentucky.

But the entire local food movement in Kentucky and nationwide has relied on personal volition: you and I wanting to make a change. Spending a little more at the farmers market, opting for the restaurant entrée that is raised locally, using the caterer who specializes in local food, asking the school principal to use local food in the cafeteria.

You and I. We are making a difference. You might choose to meet a friend at the local Chipotle, which buys local when it can, or Panera, which buys cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free meat. You might get together with like-minded parents to talk to your school principal or cafeteria manager (at Atherton High School in Louisville, the effort paid off in a salad bar; we’ll work to include local produce on it this fall).

A vocal group of regular students and adults can express their wishes to university trustees. Last year the University of Kentucky signed a contract with Aramark dining services which requires Aramark to spend $2 million on local food.  One administrator at the University of Louisville pushed for a commitment to local food and currently U of L spends 5% of its food budget on food that comes from Kentucky farmers. Berea College buys more mozzarella cheese than any other product in its cafeteria except French fries, and it buys Kentucky cheese. All of these changes are adding up to create change for Kentucky farmers and they all started with the act of a single person.

Nationwide, the decision that each individual makes to feed himself or herself is making itself felt in ways that are beginning to make big differences for livestock, our health, and the environment, including

  • McDonald’s will close more restaurants (700) than it opens this year, for the first time since 1970, when the company first revealed store numbers.
  • In May, Fortune magazine reported on the “mounting mistrust of Big Food,” quoting the CEO of Campbell’s Soup saying “We understand that increasing numbers of consumers are seeking authentic, genuine food experiences.” “Big Food” sales are dropping precipitously as consumers shop the outside of the grocery store with its fresher, healthier foods.
  • Organic food sales more than tripled over the past decade and increased 11% last year alone to $35.9 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association.
  • Walmart is asking meat suppliers to raise animals with sufficient space and ability to socialize with other members of their species, keep them free from painful mutilations and spare them mental discomfort or distress.
  • Kroger now hangs large photos of local farmers in its produce sections and is renovating produce sections to feature organic produce in the front.

What you value has been persuasive. While “cost” is the most frequent barrier named by schools, institutions and restaurants preventing them from buying local food, obviously “cost” is only a part of the picture.

It turns out that when each of us voices our opinion, spends and invests our values and cooperates on the work we believe in, we can “be the change we want to see in the world.”

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